Benjamin Percy (2016) Thrill Me Essays on Fiction.

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If like me you like to read and also do a bit of writing, then this is a book you should read. I like the measured approach of Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer. Benjamin Percy gets it from the word go. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions of Writing and Life prioritises writing before life, but, hey, nobody is watching and nobody is perfect.

You can do both. Benjamin Percy bombed on creative writing courses, or workshops, as they call them in America. But he was younger and we all make all kind of mistakes. He liked to read and write genre fiction.

Vampires, dragons and robots with laser eyes. These were the literary stars of my childhood. These stories were unified by the same pattern: they began with a bang –high jinks ensured – then the hero overcame some villainous forces to win love and a heap of treasure. Books were portals meant for escapism.

That was pretty much me too. Or #Me Too. I was a page turner intent on finding out what happened next. Even now I’m not sure if I’ve read a particular book, but bits of what happened sticks to the back of my melting mind. Later in life I did an Open University course on Shakespeare. I always thought I was a bit thick and missing something big. When I sat the exam I answered a question on the role of the fool in Shakespearian drama. Then I stopped. I was bored with what I’d written about Lear’s fool. England’s greatest playwright. The man that had introduced more words to the English language could go and fuck himself. I was never going to be that kind of person. I’d rather read the ingredients on the brown sauce bottle than tackle again Cymbeline, King of Britain. I literally failed the literary test.

I could read a book very quickly but I couldn’t fully understand it. Here’s the bit where I say I knuckled down and…well, you’ll be waiting a long time. When reading becomes like work I’d much rather do something else. You can write about zombies or dragons or robot ghosts and the chances are I won’t read it. If I do it better be better than Shakespeare. Percy asked a workshop tutor he respected for that Rosetta stone of advice that would turn vague scribbling into a published book or story. His advice was simple: ‘Thrill me.’

Imagine there are 1000 books published in English every day. You want to be a writer and work your way to the top, you need to be like Rocky.  Yeh, I know. It’s kind of cheesy. Percy likes Rocky. And I like him for liking Rocky. So you need to have that urgency on the page and in the longer term. You need to take the body blows. So here we have it. Your protagonist needs obstacles in his way to reach his goal. Rocky needs to catch a chicken before he can think of knocking out Apollo Creed. Protagonists need short-term, lower-order goals, before they get a shot at the big prize. In the background there’s always that ticking clock. No chicken is going to wait for you. The bell for the first round is going to ring. The reader needs to turn the page to find out what happens next. To be a writer you need to hook the reader and keep hooking, until you are in the top ten. Then No 1.

In Set Pieces – Staging the Icon Scene you need to cut away the dross and create something memorable. Rocky runs up those steps with thousands of school kids at his back shouting his name. His bloody face after the fight and he looks outside the ring, looking for his wife, and he bawls her name. ‘Adrian…Adrian…Adrian’.

There Will Be Blood, Percy argues violence needs to be earned. Characters do what they keep doing, if violence comes out of nowhere either you’re a genius, or you’ve not caught the chicken first. Violence like love has an emotional arc. Writers should choreograph the dance. Rocky doesn’t just go Pow! Pow! Pow!   Only Rocky can get away with that.

Making the Extraordinary Ordinary is quite a simple idea.

Most beginning writers when they first get caught up in the thrilling idea…Let’s call this tendency giganticism.

He then quotes one of the Russian greats, I don’t really get, Chekov, but who offers good advice about anchoring the universal in specific detail, ‘ on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright star, and the black shadow of a dog or wolf rolled past like a ball’.

In other words the writer is not generalising. Anyone that can write like that, even if it is Chekov or Shakespeare, gets my foolish attention.

He quotes Tim O’Brien in ‘How to Tell a True War Story’ and making the reader believe. ‘Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness.’

Designing Suspense something has got to give. In Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, nothing happens twice.  Phewwwwww – fuck off – twice. Percy argues as a writer that’s what we should be looking at. Our characters face their worst-case scenario. You’re characters must juggle and dance with flaming chain-saws, but the writer must know the ending. Truly incredible craziness doesn’t come easy.

Don’t Look Back, Percy tells us writer and readers he gets irritated by backstory. Novice writers love backstory. It explains away the incredibly exciting story of  how Godot waited and waited or as Percy calls it the Scooby Doo trick. Time moves backwards and the theme tune of Why Don’t You Switch Off Your Television Set And Go And Do Something Less Boring Instead comes on. Only, it would be a smart-phone now and not a telly. You see I’ve taken you backwards with my waffling on. I think it’s quite entertaining. I’m sad that way.

Sounds like Writing, you know it’s not. Percy gets that right? Writers like Shakespeare to me sound like writing. I want to read writers who don’t sound like writing. Who are human. Who are fools in the right/wrong way. Generally, any middle-class twaddle isn’t for me. Stick it. Sounds like Writing. I’ll scroll on past.

Activating Settings is the write what you know school of thought. I get that. I really do. Percy writes about Oregon. I write about Clydebank. When someone asks me what I write about I tell them, I write about us. That’s in theory, because nobody asks. But if they do, I’ll say, so there.

Percy advises writers to Get a Job. No, he’s not Norman Tebbit wittering on about how his dad didn’t go about rioting but got on his bike and got a job. What Percy is saying here is language is rooted in who we are. Our identity often comes from the job we do. Getting a job as roofer, nurse, labourer, dishwasher or working in a Job Creation scheme gives you a common lingo. A guy that tutored writers in Moniack Moor, which describes itself as Scotland’s Creative Writing Centre, told me that typically the would-be writer would be a retired school teacher who decided to spend their remaining years tackling their great opus. Working class writers don’t go on retreats. They simply write. I’ve been doing it for years. It’s not my job. My job is to Thrill You when I do write. I think I can hear the Rocky them tune. Benjamin Percy is a knock-out.

 

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Goldstone BBC 4, BBCiPlayer, written and directed by Ivan Sen.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b08x19x1/goldstone?suggid=b08x19x1

Mystery Road, BBC 4, BBCiPlayer, written by Michaeley O’Brien and directed by Rachel Perkins.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0bl5l7q/mystery-road-series-1-1-gone

If there’s a drama series on BBC 4, usually, I’m watching it. After the medieval Spanish drama, The Plague, I watched Mystery Road. No subtitles needed for the latter. In many ways the six episodes of the Australian drama is condensed into one in Goldstone. Essentially, it’s the same story.

Outsider, Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), investigating the disappearance of two missing young men, one aboriginal, one white in Mystery Road, and a young Asian female in Goldstone finds himself locked into close-knit outback town controlled by a minority of white folk for white folk and having something to hide.

Jay is the black fellah, the black Swan among whites and as a federal agent he needs to team up with local cops. In Goldstone it’s the fresh-faced and white kid Josh Waters (Alex Russell). In Mystery Road it’s red head and cranky cop Emma James (Judy Davis) whose brother and her owns most of the land on which the town depends for employment.

Land value, of course, in such an arid continent is linked to the proximity to water. Think of the plot of Jack Nicholson’s Chinatown and you won’t be far off the mark in where Mystery Road leads.

In Goldstone, think of the title of the town, and mineral wealth locked up in the land.  In this stripped down version of Mystery Road, the black fellahs, the local aboriginal community have voting rights on what to do with the land. There reverence for the land, the sacred lands, stands in the way of corporate greed. The Mayor (Jacki Weaver) is brilliant as the fixer lining her own pockets and making sure everybody gets a share of the pie (she bakes pies and gives one to Swan and Waters) while the black fellahs get none.

And she and they would have got away with it if it wasn’t for those pesky kids, Swan and Waters, as they used to say in Scooby Doo.

Truth stranger than fiction? I think we need Detective Swan in Scotland, maybe he could explain why knighted billionaire who bought the old BP plant at Grangemouth, and like his fictional alter-ego in Goldstone, promised a Klondike of local jobs, which never happened, and led to mass sackings and industrial actions, but moved to Monaco for tax reasons, or non-tax reasons – he doesn’t want to pay tax – and had purchased what seemed like worthless bits of paper saying his company could drill for shale gas, when everybody knew that practice was outlawed in the United Kingdom – until this week. I’m quite willing to team up with Detective Swan. There’s certainly lots of corporate skulduggery and greed enough to be shared around.

Ann Cleeves (2016) Cold Earth.

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Ann Cleeves has written a whole stack of books. This is her 31st. Sunday Times Bestselling author, and an imprint on the cover of the book showing some actor’s face, Douglas Henshall, with the tag now a major BBC drama. She is everything I am not, an established author whom I’ve never heard of until West Dunbartonshire Libraries made her novel Cold Earth novel of the week. Here’s where I segue away and start talking about myself like those insecure bores at the office party. (Hi girls and guys, did I tell you I was novel of the week, the week before Cold Earth in West Dunbartonshire Libraries and my novels a lot better than that?  You should check it out https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lily-Poole-Jack-ODonnell/dp/1783522356).   So in a way I’m checking out the competition and I’m committed to reading other novels nominated by West Dunbartonshire Library. Some times we get locked in our own wee worlds of reading and preferences we forget we’re not wearing high-viz vests and working in exclusive reading zones and there’s a whole world of books out there waiting to be read.

I love books, so that’s not a problem. The difficulty with Cold Earth, and detective novels in general, comes from watching too many episodes of Scooby Doo. At the end of 387 pages of Cold Earth the bad guy is going to come away with the Scooby line before getting led away, ‘And I’d have got away with it if it wasn’t for you damn kids…Scooby… Scooby Doo’.

We’re talking about characters, plot and setting here. On the first page, first paragraph, Ann Cleeves knows enough about writing books to fill a book and get these three in early to answer an unasked question of why the first paragraph in a book, or short-story is so important.

The land slipped while Jimmy Perez was standing beside the grave. The dead man’s family had come from Foula originally they’d carried the coffin on two oars, the way bodies were always brought for burial on that island. The pall-bearers were distant relatives whose forbears had moved south to England, but they must have thought the tradition was worth reviving. They’d time to plan the occasion; Magnus had a stroke and had been in hospital for six weeks before he died. Perez had visited him every Sunday, sat by his bed and talked about the old times. Not the bad old times when Magnus had been accused of murder, but the more recent good times, when Ravenswick had included him in all their community events.

The setting is a Scottish island near Shetland. And if you think all Scottish islands are the same then you probably have never heard of Charles Darwin, but you probably know enough to know that they are drab, claustrophobic, rainy places where if you don’t like the weather you can just fuck off.

Plot is established. For some writers a plot is where you grow turnips. Cleeves is Janus’s face here, looking backwards and forwards. She’s saying it’s not that quiet up here, Magnus has already been accused of murder, if you want to find out more read my old books. With all that rain there is a landslide. Jimmy Perez has come to bury his neighbour, but the land washes away the gravesite and the gravestones of the dead already buried, including Fran, Jimmy Perez’s fiancée buried a few graves along after being knifed to death. Her death haunts him and she talks to him from beyond the grave in italics. Don’t do that kind of thing unless you are an established writer.

Jimmy Perez is a detective it’s not his job to find out if God was responsible for sending all that rain to a wee God-fearing island perched on a rock on the Atlantic for not going to the Kirk enough, or if it’s global warming. But when cold earth ploughs through a small croft and the body of a woman is found, and it’s not an act of God, but she’s been murdered, then it is Detective Inspector Perez’s job to find out whodunit.

What I found interesting was Perez is written as the kind of eye-candy usually associated with women. His superior Willow, for example, comes from a different lifestyle, but another of the small Scottish islands, and she, like many of the locals, fancies him rotten and they do have sex, but it is off the page. Nothing that couldn’t be seen in a Disney Cartoon. That’s murder you might say, but Scooby, Scooby Doo, I quite like you.

 

 

 

Exposed: Magicians, Psychics and Frauds

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b04ndsb3/storyville-20142015-8-exposed-magicians-psychics-and-frauds

randi

‘The Amazing Randi’ is indeed amazing. He’s in his mid eighties,  stooped and worn and looks like he should be cast as Grumpy, or one of the other seven dwarves. But he has a very eloquent speaking voice and was awarded the MacArthur ‘genius grant’ about thirty-years ago. When he talks you should listen. He exposes fairy tales, New Age liars and cheats such as Uri Geller.  One of the funniest parts of the show was when Uri appearing on the Johnny Carson show at the beginning of the 1970s. Uri claimed to have  been able to bend spoons, start watches and to have psychokinetic powers. The Amazing Randi didn’t even have to be there in person. His powers extended to telling Johnny Carson’s prop man the correct protocol to ensure no cheating could take place. No cheating did take place. No spoon bending, or clock starting. Geller was finished, or so Randi thought. What he didn’t expect was the gullibility of talk show hosts and the general public.

Uri Geller became a worldwide hit. Randi’s subsequent stalking of Geller, performing the same tricks and sleight of hand as his antagonist, and a book explaining how it worked, did not generate the same kind of publicity nor kudos.

His exposure of Peter Popoff on the Johnny Carson show was more straightforward. With a name like Peter Popoff you’d expect some kind of cape and prog-rock outfit, but it was more a 1930’s Elmer Gantry type performance. Popoff was a faith healer who pulled in hundreds of thousands of dollars a week working his miracles. If that sounds vaguely familiar then chart the rise of the superchurches, pulling in millions and the sidelines of faith shows constantly touring the good old US of A. God has not turned his back on the tens of millions living in poverty and need he has sent missionaries like Popoff. He, of course, repented after being diabolically caught cheating. His low tech scam of using an earpiece to get prompts from his wife, who in turn got her information of  ailments and addresses from the prayer cards filled in by the flock when entering the church, he was fleecing, was exposed by a scanner picking up his radio frequency.  Scooby Doo where are you? This is big business in America.

Randi also took on the paranormal ‘scientific’ community. I have put ‘scientific’ in brackets because science acts as a library of knowledge and also a methodology. Randi by introducing two expert test subjects with paranormal powers showed how easy it was to dupe the so-called experts who gave legitimacy and  sanctioned cheats such as Uri Geller and his subjects.

It’s a cliche that truth can often be queerer than fiction. The denouement that Randi’s male partner had been living a lie, on the run, under an assumed name for the last thirty years, and was now threatened with imprisonment and deportment from America would be impossible to make up. Even Randi would have laughed at somebody trying to fool the American public with that one.

http://unbound.co.uk/books/lily-poole